Friday, May 22, 2009

Abortion, Slavery and Obama

Continuing my week-long reflection on pro-life issues, I'd like to make some historical analogies. Considering abortion in American often sends my brain running for context from the past.

Abortion is the slavery of our times. Consider the similarities: a moral evil opposed by much of the population, but still supported as a right by many and protected by law. The lives and fate of one section of humanity (African-Americans, fetuses) fall under the authority of others.
Debates over this issue sharply divide the political sphere. Some people live close to the issue and feel passionately about it. For those who don't encounter it everyday, it's not as big a deal.

For instance, a Southern planter might have defended slavery as part of his right to property and prosperity, but a Northern factory worker would have been more concerned with his own family than whatever happens in other states. Similarly, I think abortion is not a part of daily life for most Americans. Women don't normally go around telling all their friends that they terminated a pregnancy last weekend. Sometimes the staggeringly large abortion statistics seem as far away as genocide in Darfur. Sometimes the really intense pro-lifers with bloody fetus posters seem too extreme, but that's when I remember that the abolitionist movement housed some pretty intense members as well. (See: John Brown and his military raids.)

All this talk about Obama at ND and the importance of dialogue, not demonizing, also turns me to slavery. When I took a course on "Museums and Slavery," I again learned the importance of words. Call them "enslavers", not "masters," or "owners." Don't use the passive voice about plantation chores - "the cotton was picked" by whom?? Enslaved people, who deserve as much attention as their wealthy enslavers. Our racially mixed-class had some fantastic discussions. Even though we had different backgrounds, we kept a respectful tone and learned a lot about each other. I still don't mind Confederate flag bumper stickers on pickup trucks, but I'm more sensitive now to how people can find them offensive.

Of course, our discussions were helped by the fact that we all agreed slavery was wrong. What about dialogue with enslavers? A constant dilemma for American historians is the fact that most of our country's founders indeed held other persons as property. Dealing with this again requires some respect. Instead of writing them all off as irrelevant bigoted white men, we honor their achievements while critiquing their personal practices. We also find comfort in the "good" ones who didn't treat enslaved workers cruelly. (See: George Washington freeing his slaves in his will)

This paradox is most evident in my pal Thomas Jefferson. Here we have a very intelligent, accomplished man who crafted beautiful words about our country, but also enslaved many of his fellow Americans. Monticello has embraced this paradox since Sally Hemings became a household name. Visitors to Jefferson's estate today are urged to ponder how one could write about liberty yet deny it to others.

In some ways Obama reminds me of Jefferson - they are both intelligent, well spoken champions of religious pluralism. How can our current President speak eloquently about protecting the weak and defenseless and yet condone the murder of our most vulnerable Americans? Maybe because, like Jefferson, he grew up in a culture where a moral evil was widely accepted.

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